A lot of us who pay attention to foreign affairs have resigned ourselves to at least a couple of years of serious attacks on the foreign policy apparatus in the United States along with efforts to make every international issue a U.S. domestic blood-sport issue.
Members of Congress can often get away with taking pot shots at the foreign affairs apparatus with impunity. Practically no one back home cares. So, as long as the House member or Senator takes care of constituent services, he/she will not face any grief on anything related to diplomacy or development.
And because the bean counters at major media outlets still think that only LOCAL! LOCAL! LOCAL! will save their news outlets, the U.S. media are pretty quiet about most international issues. This allows many of the international issues and programs to be attacked.
The GOP leadership has already indicated it wants the State Department budget cut and to shift the emphasis on U.S. aid to force overhaul at the United Nations.
And now, even before they take over the House, the GOP House leadership blocked the passage of a bill that Senate Republicans overwhelmingly supported. The bill would have committed the United States to combating forced child marriages abroad.
First they objected to the cost. And when that argument failed, the GOP leadership shifted the focus to the threat that money used to protect girls from forced marriages would be used to fund abortions.
I’ll let Republican Congressman Stephen LaTourrette of Ohio talk about what happened:
“Yesterday I was on the floor and I was a co-sponsor with [on] a piece of legislation with [Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN)] that would have moved money, no new money, would have moved money so that societies that are coercing young girls into marriage… we could make sure that they stay in school so they’re not forced into marriage at the age of 12 and 13. All of a sudden there was a fiscal argument. When that didn’t work people had to add an abortion element to it. This is a partisan place. I’m a Republican. I’m glad we beat their butt in the election, but there comes a time when enough is enough.”
And for the record, the bill did not include any funding for abortion activities. U.S. government funding for abortion activities is already prohibited by the “Helms Amendment,” which has been standard language in appropriations bills since 1973.
The issue of forced marriages is becoming a major issue on the international scene, which is probably why not many Americans are aware of the issue.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, about 60 million women in developing countries between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they reached 18. The Population Council estimates that number will increase by 100 million over the next decade.
The fact that a bill that received massive support from Democrats and Republicans (even very conservative Republicans) could be so easily derailed is symptomatic of a public disengaged with the rest of the world.
Sure I blame the politicians for being crass and looking for every advantage. But that is what politicians do. It is expected.
But educating the public and making them aware of what is going on so that the citizens of a democracy can be well-informed and weigh in on issues of concern is what the media are supposed to do. And in that job, we are failing.
The issue of forced marriages got only one brief article in the past month. It was written by the Institute for War and Peace and carried on the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader website. (Only the Foreign Policy magazine website had a story about the House action.)
Sure we all saw the horrific picture of the 20-year Afghan woman who was mutilated by her father-in-law when she tried to escape from her abusive husband.(And yes, that was a forced marriage.) But after that, the issue dropped. The issue of forced marriages in Afghanistan is a daily concern to girls in that country.
It is not hard to find stories about forced marriages in the United States. The hard party is first realizing it is an issue and then connecting this global embarrassment with the local community.
Here are some ideas:
- Go to the UNICEF website and search “forced marriage.” You will find dozens of articles and videos from around the world about this issue. This place will give you some basic information about the issue.
- Does your area have a large group of immigrants from the countries mentioned in the UNICEF articles? If so, go interview civic and religious leaders from that community to see what they have to say about the practice.
- Talk with local school counselors. What are they seeing in terms of young marriages. Are they seeing any U.S. versions of forced marriages (think “shot-gun weddings.”)
- Talk with local religious leaders about the issue of young marriage and forced marriages. What do the various faiths have to say about forcing a 10-year old-girl to be engaged to a 40-year-old man?
- Talk to junior high and high school students — especially girls — and ask them what they know about this issue. What are their reactions?
I will bet you will see more local connections to this story than you might think.
This does not have to be a crusade or a campaign against any one country or faith. But it will be a way to get local people looking at a global issue.
And maybe, just maybe, it will get local citizens urging their elected representatives to look at the big picture of foreign affairs instead of the political points that can be scored.